Hello everybody, and welcome to the fourth episode of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about the many struggles of life and get them answered for you here on the show.
Today we have a question that pertains to the all too troubling idea of family “drama” if you will, or family estrangement.
Bad relationships with family are very difficult. Not only emotionally, but practically speaking it’s so hard to handle them because we’re invested in them — it’s hard to think logically about them.
So today’s question offers great detail — it is a long question. We WILL trim down some questions for the sake of saving time and focusing the main elements rather than anything that’s repeated, but because of how unique and multi-faceted this question is, I haven’t really touched it.
So try to be patient, listen, and take in this woman’s story as fully as you can. Then we’ll get to the answer.
QUESTION: I’m not talking to my sister and haven’t been for about 2 years. Members of my family are not talking to my sister. She has mental health problems and I know they are the cause of her behavior problems. She’s basically extremely mentally abusive to her immediate family, especially her kids. The kid’s school has called child protective services based on the evidence of her mental abuse. And the kids that turned 18 moved out immediately, one requiring the assistance of the police to tell my sister that it was okay to leave. The youngest is trying to emancipate herself when she turns 16. My sister told me almost 2 years ago not to talk to her and never to come to her house again.
I don’t tell you this to tell you that she’s bad, I’m just trying to give you a lot of perspectives. She’s hurt a lot of people and broken her kids' hearts. My sister apologized to me when my Dad died, and I didn’t acknowledge that apology in that heated, emotional time and I told her clearly that her apology was not accepted. I avoid her at any occasions that she’s at. Two times in the last two months, she reached out to me. Once for my birthday, and the second time just to tell me she needs help. My Mom told me that it’s to clean out her house because she’s a bit of a hoarder. I have not acknowledged or responded to the outreach, and I think it does not feel good at all to not even be acknowledged when you reach out to someone. Frankly my life is okay without her drama and victimhood, and I don’t feel I can forgive her for how badly she’s hurt the kids and the crap that they deal with every day that I see. I’m not sure I need this relationship and I would appreciate any opinion or perspective or advice you have.
It's OK to Not Want a Relationship
What an extremely powerful question, I really appreciate you sending this in. Having people like yourself trust me enough to be vulnerable and ask for your help with things like this is a real privilege to me — a real good sample of what human connection is all about, so thank you again. I hope that my answer will mean a lot to the listener who asked this question.
I want to begin by reassuring you that it is okay to not want a relationship with your sister or with any family member, for that matter. A lot of times, a strong history or obligation and, of course, blood relation can cloud our assessments of who is good for us to keep in touch with. When it comes to people or things in our lives that we interpret as blocking our growth or providing more pain than pleasure, it is important to remove feeling as best we can and try to see things from an outside perspective.
At the same time, though, we don’t want to completely run away from these things, as exploring them further and better understanding what they’re about can be of great benefit for us and them. If we give it our best and try our hardest to understand any of life’s stressors in detail, we can have more confidence going forward with our decisions whether it's to keep the stressors in or out of our lives.
What I want to do is make sure that, if you feel it’s best to keep your sister out of your life, you’ve considered the situation from as many angles as possible beforehand. Not having your sister in your life can and will be painful at times, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a decision you regret, and regret can easily double that pain.
In your case, your feelings towards your sister are totally valid and justified by how she’s treated you and others close to you. Few would expect you to feel differently. Now, I encourage you to ask yourself if the same is true for her.
Mental Health and Abuse
How has your sister been treated by family, or more importantly, how have her mental health problems influenced her perception of that treatment?
Consider this question in terms of the past and the present. For the past, has the family (yourself included) made a strong effort to listen to her and given her the opportunity to be vulnerable and explain herself without the risk of being judged?
For the present, do you think your sister’s behavior could change now if family was in touch with her?
I’m using family here not only because family is anyone’s first and main source of trust and love, but also because it seems as though family is who she’s lashing out against the most.
Now I’m not a psychotherapist, but I’d take these questions seriously, because if her abuse is worst with her children and immediate family, it’s likely she has a turbulent relationship with her own childhood which is hugely influenced by our immediate family.
A Suggestion to Forgive Family Tensions
If there’s one plateau saying I buy into, it’s that hurt people hurt people, and if your sister’s mental illness has not been accepted or embraced, both with family and a specialist, that’s a major problem because she’s not receiving the tools or encouragement necessary to make change in her life. In fact, the friction of not receiving the support or understanding she needs will go beyond stagnating her behavior; it will extrapolate it.
For example, it seems she’s trying to be vulnerable with you lately by reaching out to you these last couple of months and apologizing to you when your father died. These are cries for help. Usually, when a loved one dies, the questioning of our own lives that takes place makes it very hard to mute the feelings we need to address. Yours, understandably, was frustration. Hers, perhaps unexpectedly, was regret. She’s trying to seek forgiveness, and you’re denying her of that — which will not help her change unless she somehow comes to the realization of how deeply she’s hurting people, but we really shouldn’t bet on that.
That said, I’m not slapping you on the wrist, because disregarding her attempts to reach out is not necessarily a bad thing on your part and it’s not your responsibility to be her vehicle for change. What’s up to you to determine is how many opportunities you’re going to give her to say her peace. If you’ve given her a multitude of opportunities to express herself and be heard lovingly (like she’s been asking for recently), but she continually reverts back to patterns of abuse and hostility after you show her compassion, then no, you shouldn’t keep doing this to yourself. Hope she finds help and recovers, but you’ve done all you can do.
If, however, when you look back you realize you’ve never accepted her or made an effort to hear where she’s coming from, thus perpetuating her behavior, making that effort is of vital importance before choosing a life without her.
You don’t owe her anything, but if you feel that you owe yourself peace of mind, you can only come close to achieving that by putting yourself in your sister’s shoes, showing her love, and drawing a line in the sand if that love and support is not reciprocated.
And that does it, guys. I hope this question and it’s answer were helpful to all of you listeners as well as the person who sent it in.
And THANK YOU for sending it in. We welcome questions like this — questions dealing with personal grievances in addition to more conceptual questions like the one answered in the second episode about finding life purpose.
This podcast is here to help with whatever you need, so any question you might have, go ahead and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep fighting the good fight, everyone. Bye for now.